An interview with Giacomo Marinangeli and Logan Rakai, Product Managers for Hands-on Labs
Time and time again, studies and customer feedback show that people want practical hands-on learning experiences in order to learn new concepts. It’s no secret that learning by doing is the most effective and engaging way to learn new skills, especially when trying out abstract concepts in the tech world.
At Cloud Academy, we’ve taken this understanding — that practical learning is key — and constantly try to improve on it so that our users can grow quickly. This type of learning is scalable to any size organization, but like any growth in size, there are challenges, too.
Cloud Academy founder, Stefano Bellasio, sat down with co-founder, Giacomo Marinangeli and Labs Content Lead, Logan Rakai, to talk about their vision for Hands-on Labs.
Logan and Giacomo, before we start we’d love to know a bit about your background and how you ended up working at Cloud Academy.
LOGAN: Sure. I come from an academic background, with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in fields related to automation and software. Through graduate studies, I was heavily involved in teaching as a teaching assistant and lab instructor.
After I graduated I joined a startup working on geospatial big data problems where I managed a small team. I worked in a DevOps Engineer type of role given my passion for automation. The thrust of my work was migrating a Windows Desktop monolith Application into a microservices architecture in the cloud. I have to say that I learned a lot of things the hard way in that experience. It really helped me to understand the challenges a lot of industry participants face when adopting a DevOps culture and migrating to the cloud.
Near the end of my stay at the company, I found CloudAcademy and knew that if I had found it earlier I would have done so many things faster and better. That’s really what attracted me to Cloud Academy. My teaching and cloud experience and passion for learning new technologies helped me to land a position here. And the rest is history as they say.
GIACOMO: Well, lots of people at the company know this very well already. Along with you, Stefano, I spent the most fun and intense year of my life trying to create Cloud Academy from absolutely nothing. It was 2012. That was when I decided to leave my previous job in Italy to start this new thing that now is Cloud Academy.
So…Hands-on Labs. Why did you create them? How did you start building the product?
GIACOMO: It was clear to me that courses and quizzes aren’t enough for students to learn technical skills.
We believe that learning-by-doing is the best way to improve cloud skills because it really helps to get familiar with the vendor tools and consoles.
We started with a lean approach, building a product that was offering the very minimal experience of working with a real cloud environment and with clear and defined instructions and goals.
LOGAN: People often say, “I learn best when I do it myself.” The research also supports this idea. Experiential learning, or learning through experience, drives stronger learning results in terms of retention and bridges the gap between theory and practice.
Combining the variety of content types helps activate different parts of the brain and drive stronger learning outcomes for our customers.
Let’s talk about customers and what they need. What do you see people doing the most with labs — learning new concepts?
LOGAN: Yes, a lot of learning of new concepts, and complimenting and reinforcing topics that are discussed in our courses.
We design our learning paths to strike a balance between courses that are video-based and the hands-on experience of our labs. The labs cover everything you might see in practice. So customers can spend time working in cloud provider’s consoles, working at the command line, or writing code in an IDE.
Within labs, we also provide two types of experiences. The first is a fully-guided experience that trains customers to achieve certain outcomes and to use that knowledge in scenarios they may encounter. The emphasis is on how they can achieve the outcomes and explaining every step so they can apply what they learn in a broader context.
The second type of lab experience is a Lab Challenge. Lab Challenges are proving grounds for our users. They are placed in a scenario with a production-like environment and asked to solve a variety of challenges. The emphasis here is on demonstrating and assessing their skills in real environments.
The Lab Challenges are complementary to our multiple-choice/multiple-select exams. They usually appear at the end of learning paths and ensure customers have picked up the learning objectives. Combining the variety of content types helps activate different parts of the brain and drive stronger learning outcomes for our customers.
GIACOMO: Right, as Logan said we see Hands-on Labs used mainly as training for improving their skills and doing some practice after watching learning videos. But also since we debuted Labs Challenges we see users start using the labs technology as another vehicle for assessment.
There is no simulation involved. Since the labs were first released, we wanted to let users work with real vendors’ accounts and APIs.
I’m sure some of our readers are curious: How do Hands-on Labs actually work? Are they a simulation? Did you build something to control them?
GIACOMO: There is no simulation involved. Since the labs were first released, we wanted to let users work with real vendors’ accounts and APIs. For example, when a student starts a lab to learn how to use AWS EC2, we give them access to a real AWS account. In addition, of course, we take care of provisioning resources needed to achieve the lab objectives and we also delete everything at the end, all automatically without having the user to do anything. It’s super easy for them and they don’t have to mess around with any other credentials, credit cards, budgeting, etc.
You guys recently launched a version of your technology that assesses people’s skills. How does that work?
GIACOMO: We call this new technology Labs Challenges. The specific goal is not to teach something new to the user, but to assess their progress. When the users start a Lab Challenge, the don’t get instructions and they need to prove they can complete the mission that we assign to them.
LOGAN: Yes, the Lab Challenges are powered by this assessment technology. Our guided labs (where you do your actual learning) also take advantage of the assessment technology to validate that the user’s lab environment matches the expected lab environment upon completing the lab.
That allows us to confidently say the student completed the lab and adjust the users Skill Profile accordingly. End-users can look at their Skill Profile (a real-time, analytics-based assessment of your tech skills) and see where their strengths lie and which skills they might want to improve on by taking additional Cloud Academy courses.
I also want to add the importance of technology for providing realistic exam simulations. There are many certification exams that are performance-based, meaning that your exam is scored based on the work you do in a real environment. Performance-based exams can give a more accurate assessment of an individual’s skill in practical domains.
That’s why, for example, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) Kubernetes certifications are performance-based. Microsoft is also including performance-based components in their certification exams in addition to traditional exam question types like multiple choice. We have Lab Challenges that simulate the kind of tasks you would see in those certification exams.
Today you support AWS, Google Cloud, and Azure, so what’s next? Are you thinking about other platforms or technologies?
LOGAN: We do already offer labs that give you practical experience in coding, such as Python, as well as other topics like using Linux, SQL, MongoDB, Docker, and Kubernetes. We are always listening to our customers and will look to add other cloud platforms based on what they tell us. The big three cloud providers do make up the vast majority of public cloud market share, and one thing to add is that with Cloud Academy’s content engine, partners can provide their own “Powered by Cloud Academy” training platforms that are their own custom labs.
With Cloud Academy’s content engine, partners can provide their own “Powered by Cloud Academy” training platforms that are their own custom labs.
Logan, Cloud Academy has more than 130 Labs today, how are you guys building them?
LOGAN: It goes like this: the subject matter experts on our content team design learning paths based on customer requests, certifications, new services, and technology that is coming out. Part of that involves carving out what labs need to be created on a given subject and their specific learning objectives.
If the content is for a certification, we will take the exam and make sure that the labs are touching on what’s most important for success. The tools we use internally in the content team are very similar to what our enterprise customers use to make their own labs in the content engine.
There is a WYSIWYG [“what you see is what you get”] editor for writing the lab instructions, a provisioning block that creates resources when the lab is started, and an Identity & Access Management (IAM) security policy.
The provisioning block can be a variety of infrastructure as code templates. For example, CloudFormation for AWS. Provisioning blocks allow us to strategically create resources that are necessary for covering the learning objectives. The security policies are used to limit access to the services required for the lab to help keep users focused on the learning objectives.
Also, we are always listening to our customers and will look to add other cloud platforms based on what they tell us.